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Hess toy trucks to live on as stations get sold

The oil company wants to sell its retail stations, but it wants its family name -- and the classic toys -- to live on.

By Clifford Atiyeh Mar 5, 2013 3:00PM
On my printer, to the left of my red Bell rotary phone, is a 2009 Hess LeMans racer with 29 lights, three sound effects and a secret canopy that reveals a miniature version of the same car. It's a daily office distraction and one I choose to live with as a certified car nut.

So when I heard the news that Hess would close all of its 1,350 gas stations -- the green-and-white gas stations on the East Coast where Hess toys like mine have been sold each November since 1964 -- I felt devastated. That's not the reaction an oil company should deserve, but then again, Hess isn't a regular oil company.

With toys, Hess has become a friendly name in a cold, black-hearted industry, a company rooted in family ownership and tradition. At least it seems that way, especially since Hess hasn't been hated like Exxon and BP, both of which dealt with devastating oil spills.

The founder, Leon Hess, started small. At 19, he began delivering gas near his New Jersey home in 1933 in a used green Chevrolet with yellow fenders and red wheels, the paint livery that would eventually become the company's standard. He retired after 60 years. Like Ford, the family still runs the show. His son, John B. Hess, took over in 1995, and is now fighting a hedge fund -- Elliott Associates, one of its largest shareholders -- as he prepares to trim the enormous oil company to record levels.

For one, it means Hess won't be refining oil. It means Hess is "fully exiting our downstream businesses, including retail, energy marketing and energy trading." By 2014, the company says it will be a "pure play" exploration and production company.

It certainly sounds like Hess gas stations will go away.

But as it turns out, Hess isn't ready to close its stations. It's planning to sell them -- "divestiture" is the official term, according to Hess -- with the intent of keeping the Hess brand and the stations operating as they do now. So the legendary collector toys -- everything from helicopters to firetrucks with banks to space-shuttle carriers -- won't go away.

"The Hess brand is a strong and valuable brand that will live long into the future," a Hess spokesman told MSN Autos. "And yes, fans, the Hess toy-truck program, which has been a tradition for 48 years, will continue.  We have absolutely no plans to close any stores."

Of course, this can change. Companies facing aggressive shareholders in the midst of dramatic business cuts -- likely, thousands of jobs are on the line -- are apt to "divest" as the wind blows.

But Hess toys make this company special. Other oil companies have sold toy trucks, but none has been so astutely creative in marketing to kids and families -- nor has any other oil company done so for as long and consistently as Hess. That's what decades of these little light-up toy vehicles have done. You don't think about the smelly, overpriced gas that eventually will be our nation's undoing against the developing world. Perhaps that's the point.

That's why, after collecting them for my entire childhood, I'd like to eventually buy a new one for my kids. Even if I have to explain what gas stations and the internal-combustion engines were all about back in my day.

Hess 2009 race car (c) Hess

Mar 8, 2013 6:06AM

It's funny what you say in your last paragraph. I used to get them for myself and now my six-year-old son is totally into them like me. Last night, I told my wife we need to take a family picture in front of a Hess station so years from now, we can show people what the Hess trucks are based on...but that was with the thought the stations would be closing. I'm glad the Hess name and the green and white will live on at the stations. We won't have to take that picture, at least for now.

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